208 MY COUNTRY AND MY PEOPLE
This has a very close bearing on the unity of Chinese culture
throughout the old empire. More important than that, the
use of the characters made the reading of the Confucian classics
possible after the lapse of a thousand years. The idea that
the Confucian classics could have become unreadable in the
sixth century of our era is extremely intriguing, and one is
tempted to wonder what would have happened to the
tremendous respect for Confucianism had that happened.
Actually, the Chinese characters underwent a great revolu-
tion at the time of the burning of books by Ch'in Shihhuang,
and to-day Confucian scholars are split into two camps, one
believing in the classic texts in "ancient scripts" which are
supposed to have escaped destruction in the walls of Confucius's
own home, and the other believing in the "modern scripts"
which were handed down orally by old scholars who had
committed the classic texts to memory, and survived the short-
lived Ch'in Dynasty. Nevertheless, from that time onward
(213 B.C.), there is a continuity of writing, with a com-
paratively unimportant evolution of forms, which must largely
account for the hypnotic power these classics have exercised
over the Chinese minds.
What is true of the early texts of Confucianism is true of the
entire literary heritage, especially that coming after the Han
days. A Chinese schoolboy who can read an author of a hun-
dred years ago could, by that very training, read works of the
thirteenth, tenth or second century, almost in the same sense
that a modern artist can appreciate the Venus de Milo with
the same ease as he appreciates Rodin. Would the influence of
the classic heritage have been so powerful, and would the
Chinese mind have been so conservative and worshipful of the
past, had that past been less readily understood? One wonders.
Yet in another way the use of the characters helped in the
creation of a fairly stable literary language, quite different
from the spoken language, and rather too difficult for the
average scholar to master. Whereas a phonetic script would!
follow naturally the changes and idioms of a living language,
the language of written symbols, by being less dependent upon
sounds, achieved a greater freedom irx idiom and grammar. It
did not have to obey the laws of any spoken language, and, in.